Videos Capture Dissident Voices in Cuba

If talks between Cuban diplomats and their U.S. counterparts were expected to improve the repressive environment many Cuban dissidents face, video testimony from Cuba tells a different story. Farmers speak of their crops being sabotaged; activists describe pre-dawn police raids on Human Rights Day; and a mother recounts being threatened that she’ll never see her children again.

Since the historic December 2014 announcement of a normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., critics of Castro’s government have faced a surge of targeted repression by authorities. In February, after the first round of diplomatic talks got underway, a Cuban human rights group reported nearly 500 arbitrary arrests for political reasons, the highest figure in six months.

Despite the high cost and slow speed of internet access in Cuba, video reports of these dissenting views are making their way out of the country. A small but growing number of independent journalists, activists and political organizations are using YouTube to share critical perspectives and stories of Cuba today.

The most prolific of those groups is UNPACU, a pro-democracy organization that has been the target of a large fraction of the recent arrests. An average of five videos a day are uploaded to the group’s YouTube channel, most consisting of testimony by members of the organization describing harassment they’ve experienced at the hands of authorities.

Given the lack of high-speed internet in Cuba, these videos were clearly made with a foreign audience in mind. But the limited reporting on human rights issues in traditional and social media in Cuba makes it difficult for outsiders to assess the veracity of online reports. When an activist states on camera that she was abused by authorities, there is rarely a way to independently corroborate that her testimony is true, or assess how representative her testimony is of other dissidents’ experiences.

“If you’re going to analyze videos in Cuba, it must be on a case-by-case basis,” said Elaine Diaz, a Cuban journalism professor and contributor to Global Voices. “Some videos are reliable; some are not.”

Diaz and other Cuba experts told the Human Rights Channel that UNPACU has developed a reputation as a reliable source of information. The sort of harassment its members describe is not representative of all Cubans who disagree with the government, said Diaz, but it is representative of the repression faced by organized political opposition. “The government is afraid of them,” she said, referring to UNPACU.

Other voices of political dissent can be found in the videos of Estado de Sats. The organization convenes civil society leaders for public discussions, and records them to share online. On December 18, for instance, it uploaded a press conference in which leading dissidents shared their reactions to the historic announcement given by Presidents Obama and Castro the day before. In the video, opposition leaders express feeling betrayed by the U.S. government in its decision to engage with a regime that prohibits dissent or democracy.

But for other Cubans, U.S. politicians and press focus too much the issue of political freedom, while ignoring other aspects of human rights, like access to education, housing, and healthcare. Those are areas in which Cuba has long been seen as an international leader. Yet economic rights have also received scrutiny from the country’s growing network of independent journalists and activists.

One blogger, who posts under the name Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca, has filed dispatches focusing on grievances about jobs and housing. In a blog post and series of videos posted in January, he reported from a community where residents told him they have been waiting ten to twenty years for permanent housing, as their homes lack basic necessities.

“We don’t have water,” one resident says on camera, standing in front of a lot filled with concrete rubble and what appears to be a half-demolished home. “Doctors don’t come. Nobody comes. The government doesn’t come, not even the people who deal with housing.”

As negotiations continue at the diplomatic level, how many of these dissident narratives will make their way to U.S. audiences? Most of these videos have YouTube views in the double or triple digits. But whether or not international news outlets, human rights monitors, or political operatives are watching may not be as significant as what they portend for Cuba’s future. While many changes are underway, these videos represent one more: the telling of the country’s story by individual Cubans themselves. — Madeleine Bair

This post was originally written for the Human Rights Channel, which is now the WITNESS Media Lab. Follow @WITNESS_Lab on Twitter for analysis and resources on the verification and contextualization of eyewitness video for human rights.

Videos Used in this Montage

Peaceful Protest in Cienfuegos

Uploaded by UNPACU on January 16, 2015, the video is described as showing pro-democracy activists peacefully protesting in front of a group of tourists from the United States in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos.

Police harassment of UNPACU members

These three videos are among several in which members of UNPACU describe harassment they’ve experienced due to their affiliation with the pro-democracy organization.

Video 1 | Video 2 | Video 3

Damas de Blanco meeting in Havana

Uploaded by Estado de Sats, an online space developed for free and open debate among Cuban civil society. The video documents a meeting of the Damas de Blanco group in a Havana park on December 28, 2014. Throughout the video, several activists speak to the group about various activities they are engaged in.

Repression on Human Rights Day

Uploaded by a frequent Cuba blogger and filmer who goes by Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca, this video consists of testimony of four activists who were detained during a nationwide crackdown on activism on December 10, 2014, Human Rights Day. For more on repression that day, see this article on 14 y Medio.

This post was originally written for the Human Rights Channel, which is now the WITNESS Media Lab. Follow @WITNESS_Lab on Twitter for analysis and resources on the verification and contextualization of eyewitness video for human rights.


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